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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Soring and the Gaited Horse

One unfortunate challenge pressing the horse industry in the U.S. is the act of soring show horses. This vile practice involves deliberately inflicting pain in a horse in order to exaggerate leg motion. This practice is almost exclusive to the gaited horse show community, where in the show ring the horse with the flashiest, high-stepping gait is usually the winner. The most common breed affected is the lovely Tennessee Walking horse.

Soring is accomplished by either chemical or mechanical means. Common chemical methods involve applying a caustic substance such as kerosene, mustard oil, or diesel fuel to the back of the horse’s pastern (the area between the hoof and the fetlock) and then wrapping the leg. This causes a painful yet discreet (meaning, not very visible to the eye) chemical burn. As the horse moves forward, this lower leg pain causes exaggerated movements that, in the show ring, are sadly visually appealing, although unnatural, and horribly unethical, not to mention inhumane.

Mechanical methods of soring include various inappropriate shoeing methods to exert pain in the hooves, as well as wrapping heavy chains around the top of the hoof, or applying tight metal bands around the hooves.

Soring is technically illegal. The Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA) makes it illegal to show or sell a sored horse, as well as transport a sored horse to or from a show or sale/auction. The USDA was granted the enforcing agent of the HPA.

The problem has been, and still is, the fact that the USDA simply cannot be everywhere to bust the individuals practicing this despicable act. In fact, the USDA is so sorely (no pun intended) understaffed, that even though the total estimated number of horse shows per year is around 700, between 2008 and 2011, the USDA only attended a total of 208 shows.

Although funding for the USDA to increase the number of show inspectors is unlikely to significantly rise, this year saw the introduction of H.R. 6388 in Congress. This bill’s function is “To amend the Horse Protection Act to designate additional unlawful acts under the Act, strengthen penalties for violation of the Act, improved Department of Agriculture enforcement of the Act, and for other purposes.”

Although a little vague and heavy on the legal-ese, I hope this bill does more than just add another paper trail to this story. Soring hit the mainstream headlines in 2012 due to the introduction of H.R. 6388 and the conviction of a high profile Tennessee Walking horse trainer named Jackie McConnell. Although McConnell faced 52 counts of transporting and showing sored horses, he pled guilty to a single charge of animal cruelty in a plea deal that gave him a $75,000 fine and three years probation. Most in the horse world were hoping for jail time.

Hopefully, if this new bill passes and is worth its salt, the harsher penalties promised in its text will come to fruition. Because even as high profile and career-ending as McConnell’s conviction was, to many horses and people, including me, the punishment does not fit the crime.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: pirita / via Shutterstock

Comments  8

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  • Self Regulation?
    12/14/2012 12:02pm

    Why isn't the horse show-ring group-in-charge doing anything to stop this? Aren't there show ring judges who could/should inspect for this torture? If someone is found soring horses, kick 'em out of competition. Not just the specific competition, but all competition. I assume the horses need to be registered in order to compete. If someone is found doing this, they should have a lifetime ban on registering horses for competition.

  • 12/18/2012 01:11am

    Your subject line says it all: self regulation. Herein lies the problem. Judges in the show ring dictate the latest trends and as long as horses with the biggest, flashiest gaits in the Tennessee Walker world (the "Big Lick" as they call it) are selected as the winners, this issue will continue. Many judges are heavily involved with breeding and showing themselves, so self regulation becomes more of a "look the other way" type of deal.

    In some cases where individuals have been found guilty of soring, they have been barred from ever showing again and sometimes banned from owning horses period, as it is a form of animal abuse.

  • attended 208(700 shows)?
    12/14/2012 02:23pm

    When can I start helping with "busting" these violaters? Travel is no problem. Feel free to foward my name and email(Shawn Yantos) ([email protected])

  • 12/18/2012 01:15am

    I like your compassion! I direct you to the USDA for further information.

  • appalled
    12/15/2012 08:33am

    I had not heard of this before, and it did not exactly make my day. Part of my love for animals is watching the grace and beauty with which they do the things they naturally do. People who will torture or mutilate animals to make them conform to some arbitrary standard are just exploiters who, in my opinion, are down there with those who run dogfights, jack-light deer, dynamite fish, etc. In short, they have chosen to leave the human, or humane, community. Even if we use animals as more than pets, but to perform a particular function, we are in a partnership with them, and they merit our respect and love. My cat, who as usual likes to hang out with me, is sitting here by the computer, placidly, with no idea about this issue. I enjoy the relationship we have.

    What about the famous Lipizzaner horses in Austria? Have they ever been sored? If not, as I hope, it is simply a cheap and brutal shortcut to substitute for real training. If yes, then we should simply do without, and this should go the way of those chinese women of a bygone era who had their feet bound.

  • 12/18/2012 01:23am

    To my knowledge, the lovely Lipizzaners of Austria have not been subject to this cruelty. This is due to the differences in performance between these two breeds of horses. Tennessee Walkers in the show ring are supposed to exhibit a highly animated running walk that is mostly known for the high-stepping action of the front feet. This soring practice encourages the horses to lift their feet even higher (because their feet hurt when placed on the ground). A crude analogy would be your reaction to walking barefoot on the sidewalk versus over hot coals. Chances are, you're going to lift your feet much higher and much faster over the hot coals. This is in contrast to the Lipizzaner, who is trained to perform extremely demanding and high level dressage movements. These movements are judged more on form, precision, control, and collectedness than on pure flash, so soring would not "benefit" the horse in the show ring in this case.

  • TWH
    12/19/2012 01:14am

    First of all... Dr, It is pretty obvious to me that you are writing about something you know nothing about other than what HSUS tells you. How I know this is because the horse in the picture is a dressage horse...not a TWH. Furthermore, I have and adore my 7 TWH's and have NEVER done anything to cause them pain. 99% of TWH owners and trainers have and would never do any such thing that you people call " soreing." I invite you to come and see what HSUS calls " soreing " anyday. Abuse is in any and every breed! You can not fairly crucify a breed or those of us that love these gentle horses based on what a few have done in the past. You really need to do some reseaech on who & what HSs really is. For starter, pull up their financial statements. You owe me and many, many TWH's a huge apology , JMHO.

  • 12/19/2012 02:01am

    Dr. Anna O'Brian,

    H.R. 6388 is a piece of legislation sponsored by the radical animal rights fraud group called the Humane Society of the United States. By supporting H.R. 6388, you are either a willing accomplice to their agenda or you don't know your facts. Maybe both?

    Do you REALLY believe for one minute that more laws are going to stop the unscrupulous? The answer is no. These laws, like HR 6388, only put the good actors out of business.

    I'm so tired of naive veterinarians who fall for the propaganda of HSUS and believe that regulation is going to help these horses.

    With all due respect, WAKE UP Dr. O'Brian.

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